It's not hard to tell Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson has a little extra pep in his step these days.
After all, who can really blame him?
Henderson certainly is known as one of the more laid back coaches in college baseball. But this week during a phone interview, it quickly became obvious that he was very pleased and optimistic about the Kentucky team he's taking through the gauntlet otherwise known as the Southeastern Conference this spring.
The Wildcats haven't come close to maximizing their full potential from an offensive standpoint, and they're still winning at a high level. Meanwhile, the starting rotation is one of college baseball's best, while the bullpen is a talented group with hard-throwing closer Trevor Gott and other evolving arms part of the equation.
UK, to no surprise, has gone through the first three weeks of the SEC schedule without too much trouble. It has taken series from Florida (on the road), Mississippi State (at home) and Georgia (at home). But this weekend, the Wildcats, who are 22-6 overall, 6-3 in the SEC, face their stiffest test of the season with a road series against red-hot Mason Katz and LSU.
Henderson knows the challenge that lies ahead, but seems fearless with this group.
"We've been very consistent this season. Even in the games we've lost this season, it basically has boiled down to one bad defensive inning here and there," he said. "Other than that, we've been pretty solid defensively, our starting pitching has been good and our offense is pretty balanced. We're not going to set any power records with our offense or anything like that, but we've got a group of kids that like to play."
While the Wildcats continue to improve from an offensive standpoint, the main reason they're a top-10 team at this point in the season is a pitching staff, particularly a starting rotation, that simply presents itself as elite.
UK's experienced and rather unique starting rotation consists of all three left-handed hurlers in Jerad Grundy, Corey Littrell and A.J. Reed, and all three have interesting backgrounds. Grundy turned down the Minnesota Twins as a 26th-round pick last summer to return to college, Littrell is a rising junior lefty and Reed blossomed last season as not only one of the top freshman pitchers, but also as one of the nation's elite two-way players.
The consistency of those three has been a big key to UK's success this spring. For instance, Grundy has a 2.15 ERA in 46 innings with 42 strikeouts and 13 walks, with teams hitting him at a .196 clip. Meanwhile, Littrell has a 2.17 ERA in 45 2/3 innings with 47 strikeouts and 16 walks, teams hitting him at a .218 clip. Then there's the imposing Reed, who has a 2.57 ERA in 42 innings, along with 30 strikeouts, eight walks and a .267 opponent batting average.
"All three of our starting pitchers are better than they were last season," Henderson said. "Grundy's command is better, Littrell's command is better, and AJ has made that standard jump from his freshman to sophomore campaign.
"We like to take some pride in the improvements those guys have made," he continued. "They're all a little different pitchers, but can you say about them? They're all competing a little better and making pitches. They're showing better stuff than they did last season."
As strong as UK's starting rotation is, Henderson does have at least some concerns about the bullpen outside of veteran right-handers Trevor Gott and Walter Wijas.
Gott, a 6-foot, 190-pound, continues to pound the strike zone this spring, and has been very efficient with 20 strikeouts and just three walks in 17 innings. He also is flashing a big-time fastball, sitting 92-93, and touching a few 94s earlier this week against in-state rival Louisville. Gott has touched 96 this spring.
Wijas is one of the Wildcats' most-improved arms. He had a 5.57 ERA in 21 innings of work last season, but is significantly better this spring with an 0.60 ERA in 13 appearances and 15 innings of work.
"Wijas is a senior and he's pitching like it right now. He's done a really good job both against left-handed and right-handed hitters. He's keeping the ball down, and I think he gained a lot of confidence pitching in the Cape Cod League last summer," Henderson said. "The biggest thing with Wijas is just his mental approach. That aspect of his game has gotten much better."
Some younger arms have risen to the occasion for the Wildcats this season, too. Redshirt freshman left-hander Zach Strecker has a 1.12 ERA in eight innings, while freshman lefties Ryne Combs (1.20) and Dylan Dwyer (1.23) also have been impressive so far this season. Both Combs and Dwyer are 86-88 fastball arms with good secondary stuff, particularly good curveballs.
The bullpen, outside of those arms, must improve as the season progresses if UK wants to reach its ultimate goal -- the College World Series.
"We've had some guys out there in the bullpen who have kind of been up and down this season, and that's the thing we must get better at," he said. "The rest of our bullpen has been good at times. But, again, we must be better."
With the pitching staff well on track for the most part, much attention the final month of the season will shift to the Kentucky offense, which enters the LSU series with a respectable .286 batting average.
Sophomore outfielder Austin Cousino is hitting .309 with four homers and 20 RBIs, while catcher Michael Thomas, who only is hitting .273 with two homers and 18 RBIs, has more than made up for his lack of batting average with a stronger than expected defensive campaign. Meanwhile, second baseman J.T. Riddle has taken the biggest step forward, hitting .352 with a home run and 17 RBIs after finishing the 2012 campaign with an unimpressive .279 average.
"I like some of the balance we have offensively," Henderson said. "The big thing with Riddle is two-pronged: He really grew up a lot last summer at the Cape Cod League using those wood bats, while you'll notice that he looks bigger. He's gotten a lot stronger over the past year."
A.J. Reed has helped his own cause on the offensive side of things with a .333 average, seven homers and 30 RBIs, while the Wildcats feel like the offense will finally be in full swing as veteran Zac Zellers continues to improve from a slow start. Zellers started the season on a negative note, but has since improved. However, he still just has a .245 batting average with a home run and 14 RBIs.
The balanced Wildcats have the tough chore of trying to knock off LSU at Alex Box Stadium, where the Tigers are 19-1 this season. But no matter what happens this weekend, this Kentucky club has the pedigree of something special.
Gary Henderson is happy for a reason.
Pitching prowess: Nevada's Braden Shipley vs. San Diego State's Michael Cederoth
Nevada head coach Gary Powers has spent the past 30 seasons in charge of the Wolf Pack program. In other words, he has seen plenty of talented hitters and pitchers throughout his coaching career.
Perhaps that's why we're so impressed when Powers says junior right-handed pitcher Braden Shipley, overall, is the most talented pitcher he's ever had from a pure stuff standpoint.
Though Shipley might not get as much press as some other heralded prospects on the national stage because he's nestled in Reno, Nev., the talented, 6-foot-3, 190-pound, righthanded pitcher continues to increase his MLB draft stock with a strong campaign.
"He has been outstanding from the start this season. He's been very, very consistent," Powers said of Shipley. "He's continuing to refine everything about his game, and he's staying focused. Every once in a while he'll get a little outside himself, but he knows when that happens, it's time to take a step back and refocus.
"When you have 50 radar guns sitting there staring at you, you have a tendency to think that's what you're out there throwing for," Powers continued. "You sometimes forget pitching is really about locating your pitches and getting hitters out. When he's hitting his spots and keeping his pitches on a downward plane, he's a lot of fun to watch."
While he might be an elite draft prospect as a starting pitcher right now, Shipley's collegiate career certainly has evolved in interesting fashion. The Wolf Pack recruited him as a pitcher out of high school. However, with a thin situation at shortstop his freshman season, the Wolf Pack was forced to put Shipley primarily in the infield.
Interestingly, he actually blossomed at the position, hitting .287 with a home run and 19 RBIs, while on the mound, he only made five appearances, and had an unimpressive 8.71 ERA. It wasn't until Shipley's sophomore season that he became a big-time arm for Nevada.
"I recruited him as a pitcher, but we had a need his first year, and he's a tremendous athlete, so we used him there," Powers said. "His focus after that year immediately turned to pitching, going from the summer, into the fall, and into last spring."
Shipley put together a solid sophomore campaign for the Wolfpack. He started the season a little slow from a consistency standpoint, but got into a groove and has a 2.20 ERA in 98 1/3 innings. He also struck out 88 and walked 40.
The right-hander took his biggest step forward into the limelight last summer while competing in the Alaska League. There, he put together a crop of outstanding performances and was named the league's top prospect as a result, setting the stage for the current campaign with the Wolf Pack.
So far this spring, Shipley is putting together a campaign worthy of being a first or second round pick in the upcoming MLB draft. Statistically speaking, he has a 2.31 ERA in 50 2/3 innings, while he also has struck out 52 and walked 13.
More importantly, his stuff has been excellent thus far. Shipley typically throws his fastball between 90-95, touching 95 at times in cold temperatures this spring. He also has good secondary offerings with a 78-79 curveball and 80-82 changeup.
"His secondary stuff is really good. I haven't had a guy like him who is just very very good with all three of his pitches like Braden," Powers said. "He has pretty good command of all of his pitches, and that's kind of what separates him from everyone else out there.
"He's extremely competitive and wants to do things the right way. I'd say he just needs to improve on his consistency," he continued. "For instance, we were just talking the other day about how you can throw 97 the first time through the order, but it might be better to throw 92-93 a couple of times through the order to mix things up a bit. It's always important to maximize your options as a pitcher. We're always improving pitchability with him."
Though Shipley will be the man of the hour Friday night when the Wolf Pack squares off with San Diego State in sunny Southern California, also keep an eye on Aztecs sophomore right-handed pitcher Michael Cederoth.
Cederoth has a chance to be the top pick in the 2014 MLB draft, and possesses a tall 6-foot-6, 210-pound frame. The hard-throwing righty sat between 94-98 as a freshman last season, but often had command issues.
This season has been yet another developmental process. Cederoth has improved his command, and been consistent for the most part, despite having a tough outing against DJ Peterson and New Mexico last weekend.
"He had that one bad outing against New Mexico. It seems like when he does have a bad outing, it's because he's walked some people," San Diego State pitching coach Eric Valenzuela said. "He's gotten a lot better at getting ahead in the count more and becoming a complete pitcher. He did learn a valuable lesson against UNM though."
"Everything about Michael is improved this season. His fastball location is better, still 96-101 at times, and his curveball, changeup and slider are both now outstanding pitches at times," he continued. "He has four pitches he can throw for strikes, but all four aren't always working at the same time. Then, other times, the pitches might be firm, but a little too straight. It's a work in progress."
Cederoth enters the Shipley bout with a 3.56 ERA in 43 innings of work. He also has struck out 44 and walked 25, while teams only are hitting him at a .220 clip.
Series to watch and predictions
6 Kentucky at 2 LSU: The Wildcats have been very consistent so far this season, but have their toughest test yet this weekend against the Tigers. UK will need to get solid starts from starting pitchers Jerad Grundy (2.15, 46 IP), Corey Littrell (2.17) and A.J. Reed (2.17), while Trevor Gott will be heavily relied on late in the contests. As for the Tigers, keep an eye on freshman shortstop Alex Bregman, who continues to hit well over .400 this spring. THE PICK: LSU
3 Vanderbilt at 13 Mississippi: Should the Rebels hope to host an NCAA Regional at the end of the season, it's imperative they get things back on track after back-to-back series losses to Texas A&M and Florida. Now, the Rebels get the tough chore of playing red-hot Vandy at home. Right-handed pitcher Mike Mayers must rise to the occasion for Ole Miss this weekend. Meanwhile, for the Commodores, a lot of talk has been about junior left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek, but how about righty Tyler Beede, who now has an 0.99 ERA in 45 2/3 innings of work? THE PICK: Vanderbilt
11 Oregon at 21 Arizona State: The Ducks have enjoyed being at home the past two weekends, both weekends equaling series wins over Arizona and Washington, respectively. Now, they have the tough chore of trying to best suddenly improving Arizona State. The Sun Devils got right-handed pitcher Trevor Williams back on track against UCLA last weekend, while tall freshman left-hander Ryan Kellogg has been quite the surprise. Keep an eye on Oregon first baseman Ryon Healy this weekend. THE PICK: Arizona State
7 Florida State at Miami: The Hurricanes have been outrageously inconsistent so far this season, but what better way to get back on track than against the hated rival Seminoles? Miami has gotten solid performances from Bryan Radziewski, who has a 0.98 ERA in 27 2/3 innings, while reliever Eric Nedelijkovic has been fantastic this season, not allowing a run yet in 16 2/3 innings. For the Seminoles, right-handed pitcher Luke Weaver moves to the weekend rotation after starring in the midweek. Weaver has a lot upside with a fastball up to 93-94. THE PICK: Florida State
8 Oregon State at 9 UCLA: This is a rather interesting series for both the Beavers and Bruins. OSU is coming off a tough road series loss to San Diego, and hopes to get shortstop Tyler Smith back. Smith, though, is considered a game-time decision at best at this point. Meanwhile, the Bruins dropped a tough series to Arizona State last weekend, and will need good starts from Adam Plutko, Grant Watson and Nick Vander Tuig with the Beavers possessing one of the nation's elite bats in outfielder Michael Conforto. THE PICK: Oregon State
12 Arkansas at Alabama: We've talked a lot about Arkansas over the past couple of weeks, and for good reason. The Razorbacks are far from flawless defensively, but have done a much better job of late of hitting with runners in scoring position, and other key areas. Ryne Stanek will need be on his game this weekend against a young, but fast-improving Alabama club. Alabama possesses solid arms such as Spencer Turnbull, along with a strong middle infield, anchored by Mikey White. This could be a statement weekend for the Crimson Tide. THE PICK: Arkansas
14 Oklahoma at Texas: With the Longhorns possessing a lackluster RPI of 59 along with few quality wins, from an RPI standpoint, this home series serves as a potential statement weekend for Augie Garrido's club. Texas right-handed pitcher Parker French has battled some tendinitis, but is expected to pitch this weekend. That's good news for the 'Horns, who must find a way to score runs off Oklahoma starting pitchers Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton, who have a combined 108 strikeouts in just over 100 innings. THE PICK: Oklahoma
Virginia Tech at 19 North Carolina State: This is a rather important series for both the Hokies and Wolfpack this weekend. Both teams could use a very impressive series win, with the Hokies possessing a solid lineup with Chad Pinder (.402/4/27), Mark Zagunis (.351/4/30) and Tyler Horan (.333/4/27) leading the charge. Meanwhile, left-handed pitcher Joe Mantiply has made a solid return to the rotation. For N.C. State, left-hander Carlos Rodon, who has been both inconsistent and dominant at times this season, must rise to the occasion. Another positive sign for N.C. State is the return of hard-hitting shortstop Trea Turner. THE PICK: Virginia Tech
Illinois at 17 Indiana: We'e talked a lot about Indiana this season with catcher Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Sam Travis -- both elite hitters -- leading the charge. But how about the Fighting Illini? They made a statement a few weeks ago by taking a series on the road from Baylor. Illinois veteran starting pitcher Kevin Johnson has a 1.89 ERA in 47 2/3 innings of work, while at the plate, Justin Parr is the one to watch with a .407 batting average, eight doubles, two triples, a home run and 28 RBIs. THE PICK: Indiana
Florida at Mississippi State: You won't find many dispute my claim that State should be one of the nation's elite clubs, but the wins in conference play haven't accompanied them so far this season. The Bulldogs have yet to win a conference series, and have lost four straight series overall. Something must change this weekend, and it starts with hard-hitting outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who has taken a significant step forward. Meanwhile, the Gators finally are showing some signs of consistent, positive, life on the diamond. Perhaps right-handed pitcher Jonathon Crawford has finally turned the corner. THE PICK: Mississippi State
On the road again ...
Where we're at this weekend:
FRIDAY: Virginia Tech at North Carolina State
SATURDAY: Georgia Tech at Duke, Maryland at North Carolina
SUNDAY: Virginia Tech at North Carolina State